Battle for Vidhana Soudha: More flavours than saffron in coastal Karnataka curry?

In coastal Karnataka, for instance, election warriors exchange sharp weapon-like words on whether the region is as impregnable a fortress of the Sangh as it is believed to be.
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express Illustrations)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express Illustrations)

Elections are not what they used to be. The hype and hoopla is mostly confined to the jet-setting political party campaigners, their strategists and Man Fridays, and the hapless media which runs around to figure out the little eddies and currents of the wind. Star campaigners set up little moving epicentres of pomp and show.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s roadshows are a vaudeville of sorts, travelling as it were with tonnes of flowers and local dancers. Rahul Gandhi prefers an extended ramp, like a makeshift fashion show, where he walks like a model politician, taking people’s questions. But the people seem far less caught up in all the breathless anxiety, at least on the surface.

The Election Commission has taken away the festivity and the festoons out of electioneering. Now you have a drab mundaneness that doesn’t give you the sense of a special encounter between the leaders and the citizenry, unless you get caught in a jam around a political roadshow.

Instead, the EC has placed security personnel at strategic points on the highways to catch any illicit movement of money and liquor. Bored and fatigued, they lurk behind barricades as if guarding the country’s borders. The imagery evokes a war zone more than a democratic mela.

The battle lines are indeed drawn in plain and rude terms. In coastal Karnataka, for instance, election warriors exchange sharp weapon-like words on whether the region is as impregnable a fortress of the Sangh as it is believed to be. Will the BJP swoop up all 19 seats here or will the Congress break in?

So furious is the discussion that an analyst outside a Congress office, manned by a few worthies from faraway Haryana (state in charge Randeep Surjewala’s home state), thrusts a paper in front of your face to prove the point. The Congress managed a near-sweep here in 2013, he says, and insists these elections could verge on a repeat. But wasn’t that the election where only a rump BJP fought, since its stalwart B S Yediyurappa had split and formed his own party?

Well, the Congress claims the situation is no better now — aggravated as it is by the wholesale change of candidates. Some big BJP leaders have switched camps, others have become rebel candidates. In other words, the Congress’s hopes here are pinned on troubles within the BJP itself.

This is a crucial variable. The plain fact is that unless the Congress manages to squirrel away a quarter of those 19 seats in Uttara and Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, it can’t have a shot at the Vidhana Soudha. Hence the desperation. Rahul Gandhi has promised to up reservation beyond 50 per cent, beyond offering major freebies for the fishing community.

Conversely, for the BJP, this is the bastion it has to hold on to if it wants to get past the talk of “40 per cent commissions” and retain power. No less than Amit Shah is on hand to ignite some firepower at the party’s rallies. The Modi-Shah duo, more than state leaders or even BSY, is the party’s best bet to overcome anti-incumbency.

Voters prefer ideology over growth

The PFI’s political front SDPI has fielded candidates in key constituencies, and as a vote fragmenting element they too may ironically help BJP newbie candidates sail through.

Mangaluru, the anchor city of the region, looks prosperous—almost a micro version of Bengaluru—with malls aglow with signboards for the latest brands and eateries brimming with people. Actually, the BJP’s new ‘development’ plank would seem a better fit here than shrill communal rhetoric. Indeed, the hijab controversy that rocked the region a year ago is not being thrown around much.

Even the killing of BJP Yuva Morcha activist Praveen Nattaru, on which this paper keeps getting letters-to-the-Editor, is kept out of discussions. But all of it is doubtless alive at the psychological level. Teaching faculty at educational institutes express concern over the deep divide it has caused among the student community and say it “may have a bearing” on how they vote.

Despite the BJP’s attempt to stay away from the usual rhetoric, their staunch voters poohpooh the Congress campaign on corruption and price rise— not on the facts themselves, but “because they are Hindutva.” That the Mangaluru-Bengaluru highway remains unfinished—because of a change of contractors midway — does not make it any easier for them. Instead, they point to the sprucing up of the temples that dot the region —something “the Congress never did”— as an achievement of the BJP.

Ironically, the region’s prosperity — all three major communities, Hindu, Christian and Muslim, being reasonably better off here — is precisely what seems to also breed division. Particularly, the purchasing and trading power of the Muslim community, with many Gulf returnees among them and robust remittances for most others, is a source of underlying envy for the educated unemployed non-Muslim youth.

The coastal region’s prosperity — it’s second only to Bengaluru — has another interesting spinoff. The youth don’t want to leave home for greener pastures. However, the state seems to have largely failed in providing employment to those who don’t want to go abroad or to Bengaluru.

The youth staring at a bleak job market constitute a subterranean reason, and base, for the social unrest. There is a mismatch between expectations and what three years of BJP government has delivered — and no amount of Gadbad ice cream at a swanky mall can cool the tempers of the soul.

At any rate, unless it messes up, the Congress may be in line to pocket a few seats. In Mangaluru constituency, it has a reasonably popular MLA in UT Khader — being challenged by Satish Kumpala of the BJP — and the Muslim majority may tilt it in his favour. Likewise, in Muslim-dominated Bantwal, Congress warhorse Ramanath Rai’s announcement that it would be his last election may seal the edge he has over Rajesh Naik of the BJP.

In Puttur, the BJP’s Asha Thimmappa Gowda is having a tough fight against Ashok Kumar Rai of the Congress. BJP rebel Arunkumar Puttila is likely to split votes, benefiting the Congress in this Vokkaligadominated segment. Moodbidri is witnessing a fight between Umanath Kotian (BJP) and young Mithun Rai (Congress), where Congress is playing the youth card.

The Billava community, to which the BJP candidate belongs, is in a majority here— and he, therefore, has a head start. A significant part of coastal Tulunadu’s backward spectrum, the Billavas have been supporting the saffron ideology for years despite having veterans like Janardhana Poojary in the Congress. But intense caste-based bargaining for development perks—the state announced a Sri Narayana Guru Development Corporation as a last-minute sop—gives notice to factors at play deeper than adhesive Hindutva.

In the rest, local opinion is in favour of the BJP. An NSUI volunteer at a Rahul rally put it simply: “We’re in a fight for five.” Seats, that is. Margaret Alva’s son Nivedith Alva contesting from Kumta is seen mostly as a trial balloon, especially after the near-clean sweep of the region by the BJP in 2018 and 2019.

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